Heart Attack or Heartburn? Lifesaving Ways to Tell the Difference

A few years back, my father called, complaining of chest pain. We high-tailed it to the ER. A couple hours and many tests later, we got his diagnosis: heartburn. Dad felt foolish, but I’m glad we played it safe. And we both learned these differences between heart attack and heartburn:

october 2015 aol health heart attackAdam Voorhes for Reader's Digest

It’s easy to confuse heartburn and heart attack
The term “heartburn” is misleading. It’s not related to your heart at all, but to your esophagus, the tube that connects your stomach to your mouth. But because they’re neighbors in your body and they both hurt, it’s easy to confuse the two.

What is a heart attack?
If oxygen-rich blood is blocked from getting into a section of the heart, that section begins to die. Here’s what to do if you suspect a heart attack.

So what is heartburn?
That burning sensation of heartburn is caused by stomach acid rising up into your esophagus. This can cause chest pain that radiates to your neck, throat, or jaw. These are other symptoms of acid reflux to pay attention to.

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?
If you are suffering a heart attack, you will likely experience one or more of the following heart attack symptoms:

  • Discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

Note: According to the American Heart Association, as with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and/or back or jaw pain. Here are other key ways heart disease is different for women than for men.

How to tell if your pain is heartburn
“I tell my patients that if you belch and the symptoms go away, it probably isn’t related to your heart but to your esophagus,” Mary Ann Bauman, MD, medical director of women’s health at INTEGRIS Health Systems, said on the American Heart Association website. “But if you have shortness of breath or sweating, then it’s likely a heart-related issue.”

Hmm, I think it may be a heart attack. Now what?
“Don’t ‘tough out’ heart attack symptoms for more than five minutes,” advises the Mayo Clinic website. Seek medical attention immediately. Meanwhile, as soon as symptoms start, chew a full-strength uncoated aspirin and swallow with water. This can help prevent blood clotting and the damage it causes.

On second thought, it’s heartburn
If you’re tossing and turning from heartburn, WebMD suggests you:

  • Sleep with your upper body elevated. Lying flat in bed makes it easy for stomach acids to flow up your esophagus, causing heartburn. Try putting the head of your bed on 4- to 6-inch blocks. Or you can sleep on a wedge-shaped pillow that’s at least 6 to 10 inches thick on one end. Don’t substitute regular pillows; they just raise your head, and not your entire upper body.
  • Sleep on your left side. This position seems to help reduce nighttime heartburn symptoms better than the right side.
  • Chew gum. Chewing gum encourages the production of saliva, which can soothe your esophagus and wash acid down into your stomach. Here are other natural remedies for heartburn to try.

Still confused?
If you’re not sure if it’s heartburn or a heart attack, play it safe and seek medical attention right away. It’s easy to confuse the two so let a doctor rule out the most severe possibility.

Sources: National Institute of Health, The American Heart Association, the Mayo Clinic, WebMD

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons is a features editor at Reader's Digest.